This is a story I’ve managed to avoid writing for a very long time, and even now I don’t know how to tell it briefly, or comfortably. Unfortunately, it’s a true story.
I am the protagonist in my story, but I worry that even my self-portrait will be too vague to make me a sympathetic character.
I probably can’t fill in a satisfactory storyline now. I will need to draw some conclusions that I cannot support. This story will have thinly-sketched characters and episodic plot development.
It pains a writer to tell without showing, but as the protagonist in this particular story, I cannot allow myself to create any details. The reality is too harrowing at times to be believable, but it all happened, and I dare not risk disbelief by allowing the possibility of even a moment of fiction.
The trouble is I can’t remember a lot of it. When I cast my mind back to the places and times, I can still remember the good parts and even feel them a tiny bit. Falling in love. Debating issues and critiquing concerts. Gossiping and laughing with our friends.
I can remember the nightmare only in moments and in post hoc analysis. My will to live as myself and not as collection of scars erased much of the story and especially its turning points. With effort, I can see five-second clips—the moments of highest drama. The scenes filmed with stunt doubles. Scenes that would fill the trailer and make you wonder about the plot.
These promo-reel clips make me wonder about the plot, too. I don’t feel a thing watching them, either, no matter how loud the organ gets.
The memories I do have are incomplete. I would look things up in my journal, but she violated that, too. She redacted herself right out of those notebooks, and she destroyed all my photos of her and us. Why that wasn’t the end of it for me I can’t remember.
I have asked supporting characters to remember for me what they can, but they’re handicapped by the passage of time, too, and they’re handicapped even more by the way I mostly wasn’t telling them about what mattered while it was happening. She demanded secrecy and I am still paying the price of that agreement.
Once it was over, I just wanted to go back to having a life, so I still didn’t say much about it or write much about it.
Nothing about this story makes sense
The way it started was subtle.
I suppose it always is. I don’t know; I’m not an expert in this. I only know what happened to me, and as I’ve explained, even that’s pretty fuzzy.
We fell in love across the orchestra. She conducted right to me, and I played my horn solos right to her.
I made sure our exit paths from the rehearsal room crossed. We exchanged names and smiles that lasted ever so slightly longer than friendly smiles do. Once in a while, I managed to make our paths cross long enough to say more than hello. She seemed to want to make a connection, but she always moved away quickly, and her eyes told me, “Not here.”
But where? It’s hard to figure that out when she doesn’t talk to you where you do see her.
I became the most attentive hornist any conductor ever had. She noticed. When my solos came, she didn’t throw me the cue and then look back to the strings, like most conductors do—afraid when it comes to horn solos that more than a moment’s attention invites disaster. No, she held my eyes and danced with me all the way through the line.
It was several months into our wordless musical seduction that our paths finally crossed away from the rehearsal hall. I ran into her downtown, at the Gap. I caught her eye and she smiled. Her eyes darted around the room, and then she greeted me warmly. We chatted. We found our way to a bar. Several hours later we parted with only a hug, but the all-important information was on the table.
My journal used to have a few pages in which I imagined my seduction: I would make her dinner. Spaghetti, marinara, garlic bread, Zinfandel. (What was I thinking?) After several weeks of trying, I managed to bump into her again in the anonymity of the non-musical world, and I secured a Saturday evening.
My plan was effective.
I cannot remember our first kiss, or our hours of kissing in coming days and months. I cannot remember our ever kissing. We did kiss. Of course we kissed. But remembering kissing would force me to remember loving her, and loving her became so thoroughly displaced by fearing her that my imagination and my memory cannot accommodate kissing.
What I remember is her jarring taste. My moment of shocked revulsion—a fully-engaged moment of attention that could have saved me, had I but known that her burnt-rubber tang held meaning. At the time I knew only the benign saltiness of one who didn’t matter and the deep richness of one who will always matter. I did not know then that women taste as they are—of goodness or of fatigue, of beauty or of insignificance.
We began spending a lot of time together, and I started getting to know her friends. Her friend Rh used to join us for daiquiris and “Cagney and Lacey” on Monday nights; we’d gather around the blender and then my tiny TV and cheer from the futon the bravery of the butch blonde and the vulnerability of the femme brunette, waiting always waiting for the episode that never came.
She didn’t want to know my friends. I should have wondered more about that.
It wasn’t long before I figured out the problem: she was desperately afraid of people finding out about us. Only her small circle of carefully-selected friends knew about her, about me, about us. When she realized that I wasn’t closeted, she panicked about my social circle jumping to conclusions if they saw us going about together. I tried to reassure her that my friends were supportive, but she didn’t believe me. She didn’t want anyone past her own hand-picked tiny circle to know, for fear that it would get out further. It couldn’t get out. It must not get out that the maestra’s beauty was not to be shared with the powerful men.
While I had decided years before that I would not live lies, even of omission, I understood that for her it had to be different. It’s hard enough for a woman to break into conducting. Being known as a lesbian would have been too much, she thought. I loved her and I believed in her future, so I was discreet, only telling my closest friends, and carefully securing their promises that it would stay within our small circle. But one day a friend of mine winked as he greeted us, and as soon as he was beyond earshot, she went berserk. She demanded utter secrecy, and she demanded that I issue staunch denials to anyone who suspected we were anything but colleagues. It could not even be known that we were friends. If we’d been spotted having coffee, it must have had to do with the repertoire.
I loved her enough to comply. After all, her career was important to me, to us, to our future. She wasn’t just any conductor. She was the brilliant, beautiful, charismatic, up-and-coming conductor. She had all the right names on her résumé. The good looks, the poise, the labels. She was going places. I was, too, and we were going to go places together. Was extra discretion too much to ask?
That’s how the secrecy began. I suppose that secrecy is a common thread in these stories.
She was a partner in ways that mattered to me. I looked up to her experience and admired her considerable talent. The way she treated me as a valued peer meant the world to me.
I remember the night she helped me prepare for an audition. I’d gotten frustrated enough by one excerpt in particular that I began to think I should give up playing altogether. She came into my practice room and conducted me through the excerpt, and with the mere tilt of her wrist showed me how to draw the phrase so that I could breathe and still drive forward. She sang a percussive line underneath me that taught me how she counted the subdivisions inside the pulse, and never again could I hear the shift from duple to triple without her precision.
Another night I dropped by her place instead of going home to my own after particularly awful gig. She’d said I could—she’d be up late studying for her next audition. I was tired, cranky, and discouraged about playing horn as a career. She put brown rice on to boil, and she poured me a beer. She heated a can of Progresso lentil soup, and by the time she put steaming bowls on the table, we were both laughing hard at our parody of the foolish conductor and absurd concert to come.
The way she’d seek and heed my feedback about her conducting was seductive. After a rehearsal, she’d ask me what I thought of the way she started the piece, or why did I think that section with the woodwinds fell apart—and not only would she engage me in a full discussion of the pros and cons of different approaches, but at the next rehearsal, I’d see her trying out my ideas. When one of mine worked better, or if it went wrong in a way she’d predicted, she’d throw a knowing smile up to me—and she knew I was watching for that.
She listened closely when I critiqued her performance after rehearsals or concerts, and she especially valued my thoughts about how to handle delicate situations. I loved it that she came to rely on my feedback—that my knowledge and opinions mattered to her.
She relied on me in smaller, more practical ways, too.
She was always stressed out about something, so I’d help out. No big deal, just pick her up after a gig or drop something off at the dry cleaners. Sew a button back onto her concert attire while she does her make-up. Pick up groceries and make her something to eat because she’ll be up all night to meet a deadline.
But it accumulated. I had become her taxi service, her personal chef, her librarian, her backstage shrink. I would do just about anything she needed if she would just stop panicking, calm down, it will be fine, you’ll be great, here let me help you with…
That’s how she began to transfer her problems onto me. I was the calm one, the capable one, her favorite horn player. She was the brilliant conductor, such a difficult job, so terribly much on her plate. My schedule had a bit more slack than hers, and it seemed worthwhile to help her out. It was our future, after all.
As the little accumulated favors all morphed into larger expected duties, all those duties in turn snowballed into a dynamic in which stress was her trump card and whatever else I might have had to do didn’t count.
I didn’t think much of driving her around at first, but she’d never learned how to drive, and even when she became music director of an orchestra an hour away, she couldn’t be troubled to learn. It wasn’t hard to get there by train, but she always had a reason she’d need a ride. She didn’t have time to figure out train schedules, or this meeting was too early in the morning to get there by train, or she needed to study the score and couldn’t do that on a noisy train. I’d make one more exception and drive her.
Just this once.
Until the next time, and again there was a reason.
The only reason for me not to help out—to make one more exception, she was so grateful, I really was rescuing her—that ever counted was my own job, and even that she tried to negotiate. I worked business hours but at a company that offered flex-time. Sometimes I worked late into the night, and when I did, I would go in later the next day—ten, eleven, maybe noon. She actually tried to get me to consider her 10am appointment sixty miles away to be a valid reason not to go to my job until 3pm. I held the line, but that wasn’t the last time she tried. Once she even tried to convince me to take a sick day to drive her, and she yelled something ungrateful when I dropped her off at the train station (less than a ten minute walk from our apartment) instead.
When getting angry didn’t work, she’d try humor. The first time she pleaded in a tiny baby voice, it cracked me up—it was so unexpected, so incongruous from the maestra. I don’t remember whether I gave in, or if I did how big a favor it was, even. What I do remember was that the tiny baby voice entered her permanent repertoire, even though it never again made me laugh or even smile. I hated that voice. I ignored it. I glared. I growled. I explained that I did not find it at all attractive to imagine that my lover was a baby. I asked directly: please never use that voice again. I don’t think I ever rewarded it after that first time—that laugh—but that didn’t stop her from trying it, again and again, amping it up to crying baby, to squalling baby, to flailing temper tantrum baby. I have never seen anything less appealing in a woman, yet still she tried it, again and again.
What I realize now is that it was perhaps her one true voice—her only persona that actually matched her emotional maturity. The temper-tantrum baby was her sincerest expression.
She had summer travel plans, to study with one of the gods of the conducting world, and we planned to move in together upon her return. I calmed her panic attacks, which became more frequent as her departure grew closer. I could understand—anyone would have been intimidated by the prospect of her next three months. Meanwhile, I carried on being the capable one. I packed endless boxes of books and scores. I rented the U-Haul trailer. I organized her friends to help move her out of her apartment and into a storage unit.
That summer should have been about her professional triumph, leading to our happily ever after, but instead it’s the story of her emotional breakdown. She phoned me every week or so (using the calling card I had given her), and what I heard worried me. She said she was doing well and learning a lot, but she sounded miserable. In particular she was frustrated that another woman—a lesser talent, she claimed—was getting all the attention.
The phone calls came further apart, and the voice on the other sounded less and less familiar. It sounded as though the anger she felt toward her nemesis had outgrown its target so much that she had nowhere left to aim it but at herself. Many years later when someone mentioned to me during a phone call that depression is anger directed inward, I suddenly heard her voice again, as if it were she on the other end of the line.
I don’t remember what I heard, exactly. It probably wasn’t her words—it was probably in her voice, or in the words she wasn’t saying. I wish my journal could enlighten me on the point of my growing misgivings, but it was either redacted in another siege on my privacy or else I’d learned my lesson and stopped confiding in paper by then.
I did what any good optimist would do—I carried on making plans, looked forward to soothing her back into her old self, and put the worries out of my mind. After all, we’ve all been there—gotten really excited about a huge opportunity only to be disappointed by how it plays out in reality.
That was happening to me in our relationship, come to think of it.
While she was away, I started a pleasant job with a software company, found us an apartment to share with another friend, and got my life got back to normal. I was once again setting my own schedule, not dropping everything to drive her somewhere or deal with whatever the crisis du jour was. I got a lease FedExed around the country for everybody’s signatures, and I moved into our beautiful new apartment. I set up housekeeping. Life was good.
Then came the night of her return. I went to pick her up at the airport, feeling my stomach tighten into knots as I drove, and when I found her in Baggage Claim cowering like a wounded dog, that knot seized the rest of my internal organs. In the moment before she spotted me, I stood paralyzed, wondering if I had the nerve to turn around, walk back out to my car, drive back home, and never answer the phone.
I wish I had.
Instead, I forced a smile, hugged her, carried her massive suitcase to my car, and drove her home. I have no idea what happened next. I probably made her something to eat, maybe opened a bottle of wine, and started asking after her last few days. That would be like me, but I cannot remember. I’m trying to, but it’s all fuzzy.
This isn’t like me. I remember things.
She got a menial day job that she hated, and she sank further into her depression.
My job was going well. I did some freelancing, and I practiced a lot.
She still had that gig with the orchestra sixty miles away, but I’d gotten into its horn section, too, so rather than having to be her taxi, I was her carpool.
Things were okay for both of us, it appeared to those around us, but things weren’t comfortable at home. I can’t remember the details. I remember the better things—the big birthday party I threw for her, building an entire menu around chocolate, her favorite, and the rich conversation that night with our friends. The time my dear college friend Deb and her partner visited us, and we all went to see Lily Tomlin’s brilliant one-woman show downtown. The times we went out for pizza and beer together after rehearsals.
Since I can’t remember the miserable parts, I don’t know why it was that I finally worked up the courage to break up with her one night, early that fall. I just remember that I did it, and I drove to my gig that night with a huge sense of relief. I managed to stick to my guns that night, I think, but before long I reluctantly agreed not to break up. I’d given in to my sadness about giving up our dreams, and her pleas not to give up on her: she’d change, it would all be different, she couldn’t live without me, etc.
These are classic promises made by abusers. I know that now.
I think I even knew that then, but the thing is, the abuse wasn’t obvious yet. It was subtle, like how her insistence on secrecy slowly isolated me from my friends. While I didn’t do that great a job of honoring her desire for complete secrecy, the worry about her next explosion upon discovering that someone else “knew about us” constrained me. The chances of them saying something innocuous and kind in her presence leading to exactly that explosion meant that I lost any remaining interest in any of my friends getting to know her. And any discussion of how things were really going was just too depressing to contemplate, so I tended not to say much of anything.
Which is another classic abuse pattern: cut off the support lines.
It’s a classic battle tactic, too. I wonder if anyone’s ever studied the parallels between domestic abuse and military assault.
I’d been out for years—I was even out at work, before I landed the job—but I’d allowed her, my so-called lover, to force me to live in a secrecy I despised. I did that because it seemed like a modest reasonable request at first, and it only became oppressive to me gradually as she clamped down harder and harder on what I was allowed to say to whom. Meanwhile, my own internalized homophobia played out in an unfortunate pattern: I wanted to be the poster lesbian. Admitting that my relationship was awful was not in my vision of how to show the world that lesbian relationships were worth tolerating, supporting, even celebrating. That’s where my own closet issues came into play.
So I kept it all to myself—the very fact of our relationship, my worries about it, our problems, and my growing alarm at the abusiveness of our arrangements.
The thing I keep coming back to is that it was subtle, and it grew ugly only gradually. She wasn’t hitting me. She was not physically abusing me. Not yet.
She was just taking control of my life, one detail at a time. It started with the secrecy, and then how she transferred her stresses and problems to me to handle. The new thing that started that fall was how she questioned me suspiciously about each letter in the mail—who was it from? did they know about her? about us? etc. If I stopped for a beer with a friend, or with my carpool on the way home from a gig, she had questions.
And sure, you think, “that’s fine, I tell my partner if I stop for a beer,” but that’s not what it was like. That I stopped for a beer was just the beginning. Next it was who was in the carpool, is she single, how do you know them, do they know about us, do they know my name, how could she believe me it was just the carpool and not whoever it was she was jealous about that week, and on and on.
The questions and answers weren’t the point. The point was to make me uncomfortable and defensive, so that soon I would learn the lesson: Don’t call old friends on the phone. Don’t make new friends. Don’t stop for a beer, with anyone; just come home. Don’t write letters that might get answers. Don’t arrange get-togethers, unless she joins and can see for herself that—but wait, that won’t work either, because now how do we explain her? And we’re back to the closet problem—don’t tell anyone about her. Don’t take too long at the grocery store. Don’t agree to dinner with people from work. Don’t join in the plans to see a movie that weekend.
Do whatever you must to save yourself the trouble of her suspicious inquisition. Nothing is fun enough to be worth that. Nothing.
Did she do all that consciously, manipulating me into not upsetting her by doing things? It felt that way, but the truth is I don’t know. The most charitable explanation available is that she was doing her best out of her lifelong fear and brokenness.
But I think it’s more than that. While it is clear to me that she was broken from a very early age, and this is nothing but tragic, it is also clear to me that such people become master manipulators at an early age of everybody around them. Yes, they suffer, but they refuse to suffer alone. In fact, perhaps that’s the heart of it: they know only suffering, and so their response to their own pain is to inflict on others the only true thing they know: suffering. Nothing is as threatening or perplexing to them as someone else seeming to be happy. That is always at their expense.
Regardless of whether her manipulation was deliberate or conscious, the effect was that I lost my free will. I mostly gave up making my own choices. I stopped spending time with other people, especially. I went to work, I went home. It was easier that way.
It wasn’t long before I knew that I had gotten it right the first time: I had to break up with her. But in the interval, her control of me had ratcheted up, and it took me a while to work up the courage to dump her again. I made my decision while I was home over Christmas. When I returned, her mother’s visit still had a week left. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but during that time I saw where her daughter had learned all her manipulation tactics.
Sometime soon after her mom left, I told her I was done.
It was ugly. I remember a lot of shouting and crying from her, and me trying to calm her down. She abused me physically for the first time that night, in a form of intimate violence that was unmistakable. That was the least of my worries, though. My top concern was that she accept my decision as final. I also needed her to either move out or else assume responsibility for my portion of the lease so that I could.
This is when the real trouble began: after I’d broken up with her. I went from being an emotionally abused partner to an emotionally and physically abused ex.
For as long as we were living under one roof, she could maintain control of my time, my movements, and me. She held that over my head indefinitely. She promised that she would move out in June; she had agreed to house-sit for someone that summer. I must have shown too much relief when she announced that, because soon she was threatening to cancel the house-sitting and stay put.
Her moving out on a specific date in June was far better for me than my having to move out, find a place I could afford, and trust her to take over my portion of the lease. I couldn’t force her to remove me from the lease nor to pay my share of the rent, so if I simply moved out, I’d be on the hook for rent in two places for eight months—or else I could break the lease and face the destruction of my credit.
That’s the first trap for an abuse victim: housing. Wherever you already are, you have an obligation, and if you have to leave that place for your own safety, you can’t do anything to force your abuser to release you from your responsibility to pay for that place you fled. So if you can barely afford housing in the first place, and you really can’t afford housing in two places, you’re stuck. I had a good job, but it wasn’t so good that I could afford housing in two places. Period.
My cost to move out would have been a few thousand dollars, and that was more than I had. It doesn’t have to be much to be too much for a lot of people. I suppose if things had gotten even worse, I could have gotten some money from my family, from friends, maybe even from my boss. Many people can’t. Many people don’t have family, friends, or a boss who might spare them some money—no, not even to save their lives.
Another thing. The only way I could possibly have moved, had I figured out the money problem, was to do it in a single day, without any warning, while she was at work. Not impossible, but difficult. To do it any other way would have endangered me and all the possessions I kept in our place. A lot of stuff is just stuff, and I would have gladly sacrificed it for my safety, but I had things I couldn’t risk—not if I didn’t absolutely have to. I did quietly move my custom, hand-made, irreplaceable, expensive french horn to my office (along with a sleeping bag and a change of clothes), but I couldn’t move out everything that was important to me without arousing her suspicion and amping up the danger I was in.
So, I couldn’t move out myself. The obvious alternative is to kick the abuser out, right?
It’s not that easy. Even if you risk getting the police involved and don’t get yourself killed in retribution. Even if you manage to establish with the authorities a record of violence and evidence of instability.
Let’s cut ahead several months to the evening that I came home and she threw a temper tantrum. It was about something ridiculous. It doesn’t matter about what; we’d broken up, she had no rights to demand anything from me. It only matters that in her tantrum she grabbed something and started swinging. She had the power to kill me, and I was pretty sure she was willing to do it. So I ran.
I ran upstairs to the neighbors. I pounded loudly on their door, and when they answered, I entered, locked their door behind me, and then said my first words: I asked to use the phone. I dialed 911, and I waited in their apartment for the police to come.
When the police arrived, they were not helpful. She managed to pull herself together in front of the strangers, as she always could. She denied everything. She even denied that we were more than roommates, as if anyone cared what our relationship was. I explained calmly how she’d been swinging for my neck. I said I was afraid for my life.
They said that everything appeared to be fine now, and if we didn’t “settle down” and both promise not to hurt each other (as if I were the problem! as if people invited police into their homes when they didn’t absolutely have to!), they would lock us both up for the night.
(Great. What I need is time and safety to organize an escape, not to be locked up with a whole new set of problems. Put us in the same cell while you’re at it.)
To be fair to the police, the law in that state didn’t give them options. Details vary, but the important thing to know is that in most places, police can only intervene in present-tense violence, when someone is in imminent danger. They cannot intervene because of what did happen or what almost happened or what might happen.
For all the police were useless, though, I was lucky. I was in a wealthy suburb, in a good neighborhood, and the police actually bothered to come out, in a timely fashion, and to stay long enough to make sure there was no immediate physical danger. They took the time to see that she wasn’t holding a loaded gun. It sounds absurd, but this is more help than many people get when they call 911.
Also, by calling the police, by making this public, I had put her on notice. I got some power. She realized that I could expose her secrets—that she was lesbian, that we had been a couple, that her mental health was a train-wreck. For a time, things were calmer. I felt slightly safer.
But then the legal system did its best to help and in so doing made things far worse for me. That happens all the time in abuse situations, in different ways. The way it happened to me was this: a woman the victim witness agency—and thank god my suburb had one!—called and asked if I needed help.
Thing is, she called me at my house, while I was at work, and She answered. She panicked and gave her my number, and she called me at work, and the whole time I was talking to her, my second line kept flashing. When I finally got off the phone, I answered line 2. It was Her, demanding to know that I’d denied everything, that I’d explained “my mistake,” that everything was fine. I knew I was in even more trouble. Sure enough, She ratcheted up the controls. She was an animal in panic by now, flailing and lashing out at the slightest hint of threat.
But about that phone call: she couldn’t help. But she took the details of my story, and—
—I should pause here to point out that I had a long conversation with the police from the safety of my desk in my private office at work. I was not fired for spending an hour on a personal call. My office-mate excused himself so that I could have privacy, and nobody asked me any questions. Many people do not have these advantages.—
—and she could not help me. She said that she probably had enough to bring her in involuntarily for a 24-hour observation, but from my having told her that she was holding it together at work, at symphony rehearsals, in front of the neighbors and police, the counselor said that she would probably be able to hold it together during the observation, too. She explained that typically abusers will give up everything else before they will give up their public façade of normality, and as soon as they get back out, they will exact revenge on those who put them under suspicion. She explained that the violence would probably escalate. She explained that they had no way to protect me. All I could do was take my chances, call 911, and hope that I didn’t get killed while waiting for intervention. She explained that legal protective orders weren’t usually enforced and couldn’t actually be enforced, not in practical terms.
That woman did me a lot of favors. She disabused me, fast, of any delusions I might have had about legal means of protection, control, or escape. She didn’t set anything in motion with the best of intentions that might have made things far worse for me. She even explained to me how most of my options sucked. Many people are not this lucky when the law gets involved.
So, where are we? She’s threatening never to move out. I can’t force her out. I can’t afford to move out and pay rent on two places, nor can I move out at all unless I can do it suddenly, without warning, in a single day while she’s at work. I can’t move possessions or myself to safety. I still can’t live my life. I can go to work and to gigs, and that’s it, and even then I face inquisitions. She occasionally keeps me up all night long, questioning and haranguing and shouting and doing whatever else to prevent me from sleeping. I can’t lock my bedroom door or else she might destroy my brother’s paintings. I can’t stay somewhere else for the same reason.
And I can’t do a thing about it when she decides I don’t get to sleep. Think about that. If someone decides to prevent you from sleeping, they can.
Now, I hadn’t been hurt all that badly. I had some bruises, some nail-scratches and gouges. I still have a scar over my left eyebrow, but that’s the only permanent damage I can remember. Meanwhile, she wasn’t showing any fear of harming herself. At one point she tried to get out of my fast-moving car to force me to agree to something—I’ve since learned that’s another classic abusers’ feint. At another point, she put her fist through a window and I needed to rush her to the emergency room for stitches. That day I had an appointment I simply could not break, so I dropped her off at the ER and let figure out for herself how to explain the injury.
The whole time I was gone, I wondered if I would come home find her splattered all over the walls in such a way that the police would take me in on charges of homicide. Think about that. If someone has decided they have nothing left to lose—if she’s suicidal, and she said she was—then there’s nothing to stop her from making her final act one that imprisons for life the one who caused all her misery.
She was smart enough to be able to pull that off, too.
She didn’t. When I got home, she was very much alive, bandaged, and angrier than ever. She kept me up all night with her shouting, her accusations, her inquisitions.
In coming days, I hid the sharpest knives. I bought several canisters of MACE and started keeping it in my pocket at all times. Who sleeps with MACE in their pajama pockets? I did. I moved a few more things to my office. I told a few more people how to reach my parents. I went upstairs and explained to the neighbors, finally, what was going on, and asked them to call 911 first and wonder later, but in the meantime please pretend everything’s normal.
I suppose I can’t put it off any longer. It’s the question everybody asks, and I don’t have the answer you want.
Why didn’t I hit her back?
It seems so obvious. Maybe you don’t even know that I’m 5’11” and Scandinavian sturdy—that I’m someone who’s more likely to be the scary one in a dark alley encounter. Maybe you don’t know that she was a bit shorter and WASP-proportioned. Maybe you don’t know that she was what you’d call femme and I’m what people call butch. If you knew all those things, you’d probably be wondering why I didn’t just hit her back. Suppose all those things were the opposite way. You’d probably still be wondering why I didn’t just hit her back.
Nobody thinks about this until they’re in the situation themselves. Here’s the problem: what happens next?
She was swinging a glass coffee pot at me. If I try to knock it out of her hands, what happens next? Well, I tried to pin her arms to her sides, and what happened next is that she swung even more wildly with that glass coffee pot, and what she hit was a doorframe, but she only missed my face by an inch.
She put her fist through a window. If I try to knock her over, what happens next? She had glass in her bleeding fist.
She hurled a steaming bowl of chili at me, and it missed and hit the wall instead. It splattered everywhere, and the bowl was shattered. If I grab something to throw back at her, what happens next? What’s to stop her from grabbing that cleaver off the counter and throwing that?
She shoved me into the dresser, bruising my breast with her shove and leaving a scar over my left eyebrow where my head hit that dresser. If I try to shove her back, what happens next? What does she grab off the shelf next, and when does she swing even harder, toward what part of me, with what result?
She had a knife in her hands and she was swinging wide arcs toward my neck. If I manage to kick her and maybe knock her off balance, what happens next? She’s still got a knife in her hand.
She tried to jump out of my moving car. If I let her jump and she dies by the side of the road, maybe she’s dead and I’m finally safe, but what happens next? There will be questions. Nobody jumps out of a car moving 55 mph. Witnesses will be sure they saw me shove her.
When her drama peaked like this, my goal was always to defuse it. I couldn’t afford to find out what might have happened next.
But that wasn’t even my first reason. My first reason—and this is the part of the story where people just don’t know what to do with me—is that I would not give her the satisfaction of reducing me to violence. I do not hit people. I do not throw things. I do not swing knives at people. I do not shove people into furniture. I do not, will not do these things.
I am not violent.
I will not become violent.
I was holding on for all I was worth to my dignity and my principles. Without these what did I have?
Self-defense, yes. If it had gotten to a point where it was unquestionably my life or hers, I would have acted to protect my own life. But it’s never that clear. It’s always far more subtle. Again, what happens next? She strikes, I strike back, she strikes harder. Unless someone delivers an incapacitating blow, it’s not over. If you do, there is eventually the moment of recovery. Unless you are willing to kill someone, sooner or later—usually sooner—they will be able to strike again, and they will be even more willing. Violence begets worse violence. Period.
I couldn’t afford to find out what happens next.
The other question people ask is Why didn’t you just leave?
Because I couldn’t leave. I had no place to go. My stuff was there and I had no way to protect the irreplaceable things if I left. I couldn’t afford two places. Et cetera. I’d already been down this list, every day, every sleepless night, and the bottom line never changed: I couldn’t do it. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted out! But how to get out just wasn’t clear, even when I was safely away at work and strategizing calmly. It sure as hell wasn’t any clearer when we were in a moment of crisis and I could barely see, let alone think.
And let’s face it. For all I was holding it together, keeping myself alive and employed and basically sane, I was pretty severely impaired by exhaustion, fear, stress, and the reality-distortion operation she was running.
This impairment point is subtle, too. At any moment during this whole nightmare of a year, I could have explained to you rationally and calmly exactly what was going on and how the mechanics of her abuse worked. I never lost track of how it was abuse, not my fault, not within my control, not a game I could win. But at times, figuring out how to get through one more day or avoid one more crisis or defuse the one I hadn’t avoided—and yes, I did realize I couldn’t avoid the crises any more than I wasn’t causing them—was just more than I could handle.
By now I was barely able to eat. There were only two things I could stand to put in my mouth, chew, and swallow: plain yogurt, sometimes with a handful of granola, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Neither one of those options tasted good, and they both got stuck in my throat, but I could get them down.
I was barely working at my job. Instead I was spending my days in long phone calls with a small, staunch support network—most notably my social-worker mom. Nearly every one of those conversations, I needed the reminders that I didn’t deserve this and couldn’t control this as much as I needed the help strategizing my next move. I knew this stuff, but I was under siege, and under siege I just couldn’t make sense of it all.
So. I should have hit back. I should have run.
But even all these years later, I can’t figure out how either of those choices would have worked out very well. If I’d hit back, I’d have even worse scars to show you now. If I’d moved out, the financial burdens of paying rent in two places and replacing destroyed property would have been severe. Perhaps neither of these things would have killed me, but neither did my strategy of staying put and surviving somehow, right?
At any rate, that’s what I did. I stayed put, and I survived. Somehow.
So, let’s review.
No freedom—just work and home, managing the crisis at work and surviving miserable conditions at home. Suicide watch. Homicide watch. Inquisitions. Sleep deprivation. MACE. Sharps hidden. Neighbors alerted. Emergency supplies in my office and car trunk. Long phone calls—from work, during the day—with my social-worker mom, who knew what to say, whose support was unconditional, and my friends, who were trying hard to grasp what I was going through. With my boss, whose support was unconditional.
This is where my story makes a dramatic change, one that most people can’t even dream about.
After that long phone call with the victim witness agency in the middle of the work day, I had to explain to my immediate supervisor what was going on. Rather than warn or punish me, he gave me a long hug and advised me to talk to our boss.
Our boss was a Ph.D. psychometrician (psychometrics is the statistical side of psychology) and a D.Div. ordained Lutheran pastor who had wanted to do pastoral counseling, not be a parish preacher. Who was married to a top appellate lawyer, who had won international-headline cases, who did pro bono work for battered women’s shelters.
He was compassionate and generous, telling me to forget about my work, just handle my situation at home, do whatever it takes, we’ll worry about work later. I don’t think I even need to point out how lucky I was right there, but that was only the first and smallest of his gifts to me.
He spent most of that day talking with me in his office, learning the whole story in detail. He asked a lot of specific, pointed questions about her behavior, her words, her moods. He figured out what was going on—most likely he had a complete diagnosis of her psychological condition and a full explanation for it, but he didn’t share that with me. What he did do was plan, with me, a way to escape.
He explained what she felt and needed, how she saw the whole situation as victimizing her, how every time I found a way to survive her escalations of force, she grew more desperate and gave up another layer of inhibitions, becoming willing to make the next action far worse. How she felt that I had everything and she had nothing. That made sense when he explained it, but it was not my operating reality—quite the opposite, since she was the one who was in complete control of my life.
He explained how I needed to play an elaborate theatrical role to make her feel she had all the power, that I was suffering and desperate and needed her help. I had to give up my dignity and pride; I had to cry in her lap, beg her to help me, scream my desperation.
I don’t know how to explain how hard this was, to conceive of giving up the one power I had: my own strength and dignity.
Then, once she felt merciful and wanted to help me, I needed to thread a careful path to escape, first getting her to promise she would move out, then to sign legal forms confirming that promise, and to release her interests in the lease to a non-threatening-to-her friend of mine who had agreed to pretend that she would be moving in as of that date. He predicted that she would have all kinds of demands. She would want to draw up a contract. I should agree to everything, get out a yellow pad and write it all down, no matter what—in the end, I would renege on every deal, and it wouldn’t matter. The point was that this was how she would save face and think she was winning. I should also come up with a few insignificant demands of my own, just so she wouldn’t think it wasn’t real. I decided to demand that my job in her orchestra was safe. I agreed that she could keep things in our storage in the basement through summer, but I demanded that she agree that as of September something, I had the right to dispose of anything unclaimed.
That’s exactly how it happened, right down to the legal pad being yellow. I don’t remember most of the clauses of that contract, but I’ll never forget the mental effort it took me to keep crying and acting desperate while also writing out a contract and coldly calculating what things I needed to demand in return to make it feel real to her without pushing her too far and making her pull out of the whole thing.
Then I needed to continue play-acting my desperation until that date, to keep myself safe. When the day came that her interest in the lease expired, I could, if I had to, call the police and ask them to escort her from the apartment. After that, I would have to hope that she would either fall too much apart to continue to be a threat or pull herself together and try to keep up appearances. There were no real protections available to me beyond changing the locks and keeping up my precautions with MACE, etc.
The truth is, it was somewhat easier from that day.
Holding myself together had been exhausting. Falling apart deliberately, crying and wailing in front of her—on purpose—came pretty naturally by then. My nerves were so frazzled, it was extremely easy and not at all artificial for me to fall apart on command. Once I was crying and flailing, I could even shout some of my true feelings at her—that she was frightening me, that I was desperate, please please could she just move out early and let me feel safe and in control of anything at all again.
Back to that day in my boss’s office, though: he also spent a long time explaining to me what it would look like if her suicidal ideation changed from manipulative threats to a real plan. What he said bore no resemblance to what you read in pamphlets and magazines, in all those lists of warning signs that everybody thinks they know. He said she would stop threatening suicide. She would stop talking about it altogether. She would become calm, perhaps even seem at peace. She would become loving, maybe even generous. Because she would have finally decided. She would be relieved that she finally had a decision and a plan, and then she would quietly do it. And he agreed that if she did it, she’d probably try to implicate me in murder.
As long as she kept talking about suicide or murder, I was safe.
Think about that. Imagine living that way: being comforted by threats on your life, or threats of killing herself in front of you. Imagine watching worriedly, in dread of the day she seemed relaxed or happy.
He told me that his best guess was that she would not kill herself, but that he wasn’t sure, and that he thought she probably wouldn’t try to kill me.
That was not comforting.
Two more months I lived this way. We played this game right down to the last day.
Several days before the day, my brother and his new wife arrived for a visit planned months earlier. She had been panicking about their arrival and trying to get me to call them and tell them to turn around. I almost did. Barely able to think straight on my own, I talked to my parents, who filled in my brother, and we all decided that at best his visit would force her to get it together and act normal for a few days, and otherwise it would force her final breakdown, in which case having a burly 6’4″ guy and a feisty woman with a loud voice standing next to me would probably be helpful.
What really gave her fits—and this fascinates me—was that they were bringing their black lab along. Why? She wasn’t afraid of dogs, generally, so I can only speculate: on some level of consciousness she knew that in her fierce intelligence she could stay ahead of people and hold onto her manipulative control, but that a dog wouldn’t fall for her words. A dog would see right through her fearful hostility and do whatever was needed to protect the rest of us.
So they arrived, and for two days before the day we pretended everything was normal. In stolen moments I briefed them.
The night before the day, all hell broke loose. Suddenly she announced that they were no longer welcome, that it was nice of them to visit, but that we needed our privacy and they needed to leave, now, stay in a hotel for the night—she would pay for it—and then go home.
We all stared at her. She glared at my brother. He stood gaping, slack-jawed, and for the first time in my life I loved him for his complete lack of words. My new sister-in-law, whom I barely knew, stood next to me, took my hand, and hissed, “We’re not going anywhere. We’re her family, and unless she tells us to leave, you’re the one who’s going to have to leave.”
I almost did tell them to go to a hotel. It was that hard to imagine that I was finally at the end, that I would escape, that it was almost over.
While I fought with myself, I held my sister-in-law’s hand and didn’t say anything. My brother continued standing there, gaping, speechless, being 6’4″ and burly.
She retreated to her bedroom. She phoned her mom. We heard crying and wailing, and then it grew frighteningly quiet. Timidly she stepped out and handed the phone to me, then led me back into her room, where she curled up in a fetal moan.
Her mom asked me to make her a mug of cocoa and speak soothingly to her. To help her fall asleep, and tomorrow, to help her move her things to the new place. First to make her a mug of cocoa and speak soothingly to her.
I made cocoa. I spoke soothingly. I waited for her to fall asleep. I slept on the couch next to the dog, because it felt like the safest place to sleep. The next day I helped her move to the new place.
While I was gone, my brother and sister-in-law let the locksmith in to change the locks. When I got back, I canceled every credit card. I called all the friends, neighbors, and family who had been on alert. I called my boss and told him it was over.
I breathed again.
About a week later she called me, yelling about the phone card not working anymore and then pleading with me to take her back. She explained that she’d already seen a therapist five times, and that she was working hard.
Five times in a week? That told me that she’d finally lost enough of her grip to let someone see how much help she needed. I made a few quiet refusals and then I said goodbye.
I only saw her once after that, at a summer pops concert a year later. We both pretended it was great to see each other and then moved away from each other quickly.
This is not about me
I am bored by this story.
Well, no. I guess it’s more accurate to say that I repressed its details so that I could go on living.
But it was a long, long time ago, and I escaped. Nothing life has thrown at me since then has been even remotely close to comparing to that nightmare. Life now is good. I’m fine.
But stop to think about how many advantages I had that many people don’t have.
I knew it was abuse, that I didn’t deserve it, that it was not my fault, that I couldn’t control it, and that I did not have to put up with it.
I had the knowledgeable support of family, friends, and colleagues. I got hours of help on the phone nearly every single day from a professional social worker and the smartest person I know: my mom.
I had a good job and decent income. I was white, smart, middle-class, and well-educated, living in a well-to-do white-collar suburb with good police and support services.
I had the most uniquely and perfectly qualified expert in perhaps the nation spend an entire day with me, figuring out the situation, plotting a strategy, educating and coaching me, giving me permission not to get any work done for several months while I made it my priority not to die, and keeping his door open to me day and night if I ever needed to talk. At no charge.
I think of myself as a survivor. I believe that one way or another I would have made it out no matter what, but put me back in that time and place, and I could not for the life of me have told you how I would do it. My gut feel is that I got incredibly lucky escaping with minor scars, with my finances intact, and with my mental health stable, if frayed.
This is about too many people
In the U.S., one in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Depending on survey methodology up to 6 million women and 6 million men are victims of domestic violence every year, in the United States. Domestic violence is race-blind, but it affects the poor three times worse. Women account for 85% of the domestic violence victims.
On average, in the U.S., more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners every single day.
My ordeal was long ago, and I’m fine. For far too many others, this story is today. This story is now, and this story is how they will die.
What I can’t find in any of the published statistics is how anybody else ever escapes from this. All I know is that I had every advantage in the world—every possible advantage—and I’m still not sure how I did.
Three out of every four Americans know someone personally who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. So chances are that you will have an opportunity to recognize this situation and help someone.
Please figure out a way to do so. Start by knocking on the door when you hear noises that worry you, and don’t accept an answer you don’t believe. Answer your door and give a frightened stranger shelter. Call for help. Give money. Support shelters. Donate services to battered women. Hold someone’s hand through their moment of crisis. Cut an employee some slack. Cut a tenant some slack. Try to understand that the victim is not to blame, that she probably is trying for all she’s worth to escape and can’t. Yet. Help her any way you can.
I made it out.
A kaddish for those who don’t.